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Emerging Clout of New York City's Latinos

BY Curtis L. Taylor

June 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Newsday Inc. All Rights Reserved.

NEW YORK - One Democratic mayoral candidate is planning a Spanish link to his Web site.

Another Democratic candidate is blitzing the radio airways with commercials in Spanish and English.

And a Republican candidate is asking voters to forgive his terrible accent in his first television campaign spot in Spanish.

All are indicators of the emerging political clout of the city's Latino residents, who some political experts are predicting will play a significant role in electing the city's next mayor.

At the heart of this burgeoning Latino activism is the unity spurred by opposition to the U.S. Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing exercises, according to Latino leaders and other elected officials.

"Historically, there have been efforts at bringing the different parts of the coalition together but we have failed miserably," said Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx County Democratic Party chairman who is jailed in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center for trespassing in protest of the Navy bombing. "Perhaps part of the reason was people coming together from different backgrounds couldn't unite behind basic issues.

"But Vieques is an issue that has galvanized the Puerto Rican and Latino community," Ramirez said in an interview Wednesday at the Brooklyn jail, where this Friday he will complete serving his 40-day sentence.

Over the past decade, the Latino population nationally has increased nearly 58 percent to 35.3 million, according to the 2000 Census. In New York City, the population has soared from 16 percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2000.

In 1997, Latinos made up 21 percent of voters in the mayoral election, a 13 percent increase over 1993. This year, they are expected to represent a quarter of the voting population.

While demographics are not a final indicator of electoral influence, Latinos are expected to play a major role in citywide elections this fall.

It is a role that Latinos have already assumed in past elections. In 1989, 34 percent voted for Rudolph Giuliani, who lost to David Dinkins that year. In 1993, Giuliani garnered 38 percent of the vote and beat Dinkins. In 1997, he received 42 percent of the Latino vote and won easily.

The Vieques protest has fueled excitement that the potential of a Latino/African-American coalition could materialize and provide the deciding voting bloc in what is expected to be a tight, four-way Democratic mayoral primary between Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone.

Ferrer, who is Puerto Rican , is hoping the Vieques dispute will cement a Latino/African-American coalition and send him victorious to City Hall.

He has received the endorsement of state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who is African-American and a Democratic candidate for governor in next year's statewide election. The Bronx borough president also has courted the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is serving a 90- day sentence at the Brooklyn detention center, also for trespassing while protesting on Vieques .

"What this issue helps us to do is to crystallize the common bond between these two communities," Ramirez said.

Along with the Vieques dispute, politicians are concentrating afresh on Latino residents because of their sheer numbers. The 2000 Census showed that those identifying themselves as Hispanics are the fastest-growing population in both New York State and the nation.

And, more and more, Latinos are making their political voices heard.

Consider Los Angeles, where Hispanic voters turned out in record numbers to vote for Antonio Villaraigosa in his unsuccessful bid to become the city's first Latino mayor in more than a century. Or look at the response from Gov. George Pataki, who has traveled from Albany both to Vieques to stand with those calling for an end to the bombing and to Washington to personally lobby President George W. Bush on the issue. (Bush has proposed ending the Navy operations in Vieques by 2003, a move that the bombings' opponents call a half-measure that doesn't come quickly enough.)

According to a poll released earlier this month by the New York- based Hispanic Federation, voter registration among Latinos in New York City is continuing to grow.

There has been a 6 percent increase since 1998 in the number of city Latinos registered to vote, according to the poll released as part of the "2001 Leadership and Civic Responsibility" report.

"We found registration numbers mirroring the Census figures," stated Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, president of the federation, an advocacy organization of 69 health and human service agencies in the tri-state area.

"The Latino community represents a potential swing vote nationally, but here in the city it represents the difference between winning and losing an election," Cortes-Vazquez stated in the report.

Democratic mayoral aspirant Green has enjoyed a double-digit lead in most polls so far, but Ferrer pulled closer this past month. All polls show Ferrer with a commanding lead of more than 50 percent in the Latino community.

In a poll released Wednesday by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, Ferrer showed an increase from 12 percent to 17 percent from March to June.

Green dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent in the same poll, Hevesi gained two points in the poll to register 14 percent, and Vallone dropped three points to 12 percent.

In Queens, Ferrer's numbers are improving. The latest NY1 poll shows the Bronx-based Ferrer with 13 percent of the vote, ahead of locals Hevesi and Vallone.

Green, a Manhattan native, would win Queens with 23 percent of the vote, according to the NY1 poll.

All four Democratic candidates and Republican mayoral candidates Herman Badillo and Michael Bloomberg are courting the Latino vote.

On Wednesday five of the candidates participated in the first mayoral forum to discuss Latino issues this campaign season at New School University in Manhattan.

During the two-hour forum, the audience, comprised mostly of Latinos, bombarded the candidates with tough questions on housing, immigration, crime and racial profiling.

But when several of the candidates left the crowded room for another forum elsewhere, for women, some of those attending said they believed the Latino community had not been given the proper respect.

"This evening was disturbing to me because in this race everyone is paying lip service to Latino voters, but this was the only forum we had in the city," said Angelo Falcon, senior policy executive and director for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "We have to start organizing and holding these candidates accountable."

Norman Adler, a bipartisan political strategist, said it was too early to determine what impact Latinos would have on the fall elections. While the city's Latinos almost always vote Democratic, he said, they haven't yet proven they will come out in record numbers to support a candidate.

Badillo, former chairman of the City University of New York board of trustees, said that the importance of Latinos as a voting bloc will increase as the city's population continues to shift and change.

"The percentage of people in the Latino community is growing not just become of more births but because of continuing immigration," said Badillo, who is Puerto Rican .

The mayoral election will signal a turning point in the Latino community's political influence either way, Falcon said.

"There are a lot of possibilities...but we could also blow it," he said. "Our ability to take those numbers of increased voters and turn them into political power will be the challenge."

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